Greek police beat up another ‘illegal immigrant’ who’s actually a tourist

January 10, 2013

(Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

Even after Greek police handcuffed him without giving cause, took his passport and beat him on three separate occasions as they dragged him to the station, South Korean tourist Hyun Young Jung insisted on being sympathetic. "I can understand them asking me for ID and I even understand that there may have been a case to justify them hitting me in the first instance," he told BBC News. "But why did they continue beating me after I was handcuffed?"

In August, Greece instituted a new law enforcement strategy, termed "Operation Xenios Zeus," to detain and export illegal immigrants. It's hard to qualify the program as a success. Of the 60,000 people detained, only 4,200 have ultimately been arrested. But it's also produced shocking stories like Hyun Young Jung's, of well-meaning tourists who come to spend money and are rewarded with detention and, sometimes, a beating. Ironically, though the harsh anti-immigration law behind their treatment is purportedly meant to protect Greece's economy, it could end up doing the opposite.

The incidents also included, among others, an African American tourist named Christian Ukwuorji who was arrested despite showing his U.S. passport and, when he tried to snap a cellphone photo of his handcuffs, beaten to the point of unconsciousness. A notice on the U.S. State Department Web site warns, "The U.S. Embassy has confirmed reports of U.S. African American citizens detained by police authorities conducting sweeps for illegal immigrants." It also notes "unprovoked harassment and violent attacks against persons who, because of their complexion, are perceived to be foreign migrants."

Xenophobia and ethnic nationalism seem to be rising in the economically devastated country, empowering extremists, including the neo-Nazi "Golden Dawn" party. The Post's Anthony Faiola has been chronicling their rise for months, including the support that the group sometimes seems to receive from the police. Law enforcement enjoyed special status under Greece's early 1970s military junta, a far-right government with an ideology not so different from Golden Dawn's. 

The economic thinking behind the anti-immigration law is straightforward. Illegal immigrants are thought to use Greece as a transit point into Europe, flowing into the country in large numbers but often failing to make it any further. The BBC explains that this influx poses an enormous problem for the already disastrous economy: "With a welfare system in meltdown, the government lacks the resources to support this new growing population."

So the police are attempting to target illegal immigrants but, putting aside for a moment both the efficacy and humanity of their program, they could put at risk another kind of population influx: tourists. Tourism constitutes an astounding 15 percent of Greece's GDP. By comparison, information technology makes up 4.4 percent of the U.S. economy. Could you imagine what would happen if a new U.S. policy led police to arrest and beat Google executives? Now imagine that the IT sector is three times as large, that Americans are even more desperate for an economic recovery than they already are, and that executives could easily pick up and take their business somewhere else, as tourists do. 

Of course, the logic of xenophobia is rarely rational or even straightforward. But it's sad to see Greece, which has plenty of problems, some of them breathtakingly daunting, imposing yet another economic problem on itself

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Olga Khazan | January 10, 2013